Reel life stories: We look at the Strand cinema in Belfast
The iconic Strand cinema on the Holywood Road in Belfast celebrates 80 years in business next week. Ivan Little revisits his childhood haunt and finds it going from strength to strength.
They really should make a film about Belfast's oldest cinema, which celebrates its 80th birthday next week. But the remarkable story of the Strand picturehouse on the Holywood Road has had so many dramatic twists and turns that it might even stretch the credulity of the movie moguls in that other Hollywood.
For just how the Strand, which is one of east Belfast's most iconic landmarks, has managed to survive through the turbulent years of the Troubles and the resulting rash of cinema closures is nothing short of a miracle, according to a local historian whose Christian name just happens to be - rather appropriately - Oscar.
He's Oscar Ross, the archivist of the East Belfast Historical Society, and he's giving an illustrated talk about the Strand's rollercoaster history tomorrow and he says it opened with a fanfare - and the screening of Shirley Temple's film Bright Eyes - back on December 7, 1935 during what was a golden era of entertainment in the city, when no fewer than 18 cinemas were built in a four-year period.
The 1,170-seat Strand, which was on the site of Strandtown House, the old home of shipping magnate Gustav Heyn, was designed by architect John (Jack) McBride Neill and the influences of the nearby Harland & Wolff shipyard were unmistakeable, with the cinema's curved walls, portholes in the foyer and lights similarly in the shape of portholes on the interior walls.
Initially, the Strand - one of a total of 40 cinemas in Belfast - was owned by the Union group, but when the English company went bust a few years later it was taken over by the ABC group, who also ran the Ritz in Belfast's city centre and the Majestic on the Lisburn Road. Oscar says the ABC sold the Strand for £100,000 to an unknown buyer in 1977 - the year that two firebombs were planted in the building - and it was run as an independent cinema until 1983, when it closed.
"Plans were submitted to turn it into a supermarket, but the council turned them down - fortunately," says Oscar.
But still the future looked bleak until a new "hero" entered from the wings. Bingo hall proprietor Ronnie Rutherford, a former devotee from east Belfast, was that man and in 1984, at a time of decline for cinemas, he turned his old childhood haunt into a variety theatre, staging shows by stars as diverse as Little and Large, the Drifters, the Nolans and Orville the Duck.
"We had some great nights with some fantastic crowds," says Ronnie. "But bringing in the big names from across the water cost a fortune and the venture just wasn't sustainable."
Not long afterwards, Belfast's passion for films was rekindled and, in 1988, the Strand was turned into a four-screen multiplex.
But soon even larger multi-screen venues were opening all over Belfast and the Strand didn't have the room to expand to allow it to compete with the big boys.
There was talk of knocking the Strand down and rebuilding it with apartments on top of a new cinema, however, the ambitious project to fully utilise the vast space on the site was scuppered by the collapse of the property market.
In 2013, the Strand ceased operating as a commercial cinema and developed a new strand for itself as a not-for-profit charitable arts centre presenting live music and theatre as well as playing host to filmmaking classes and creative workshops primarily for young people.
Ronnie Rutherford's daughter, Linda Smyth, is still involved in running the cinema and Strand Arts Centre chief executive, Mimi Turtle, says business is booming.
"We've attracted over 90,000 people through our doors in the last two years, from young children at our Minors Club to older audiences at what we call our Silver Screenings," she says.
The Minors Club is not a new idea. It used to operate on Saturday mornings in the Fifties and Sixties and a youthful Van Morrison played there, returning many years to play a gig in front of just 150 people at the opening of the arts centre.
Officials are currently seeking funding for a £2m renovation programme at the Strand, where the facade was restored in 1999 emphasising its art deco style.
The foyer has been refurbished with black-and-white tiles and block pattern wallpapers as a nod to the Thirties of its origins.
Alan McClurg, who's a projectionist in the Strand and who also gives guided heritage tours of the cinema, hopes its future is bright.
The self-confessed movie buff has lived near the Strand all his life, but he first sampled what he says is its unique appeal when he was a St John Ambulance volunteer on first aid duty at variety concerts in the Eighties. "It was an easy touch, really," he says. "No one was going to do themselves much damage listening to Little and Large or Dickie Rock."
Alan found himself back in the Strand 10 years ago, when he was trained to show films on 35mm projectors at the cinema, where most of the films are now screened digitally.
Alan's monthly "behind the curtain" tours have proved popular after he carried out extensive research into the Strand's history and quizzed colleagues about their memories of the cinema.
One of his funniest stories concerns one showing of James Cameron's blockbuster movie Titanic, about the doomed liner which was built within sight of the Strand.
"Apparently, one cold and rainy winter's night the ice had frozen the downpipes and some of the water leaked onto the inside walls where it froze and so people got an added icy 3-D effect to go along with the icebergs."
The Strand also holds a myriad of memories for hundreds of people from east Belfast. Ken Felshaw, the co-founder of Grafton Recruitment in the city, was brought up in nearby Grampian Avenue.
He says the Minors Club was his "boyhood pleasure palace", adding: "The Strand provided more than just entertainment; it was a source of wonder and excitement that fed many a young imagination.
"We lined up every Saturday morning outside in front of the commissioner in his long burgundy coat and official cap. He kept us waiting outside until 10.30am on the dot and would only let us in if we were wearing our ABC Minors badges.
"Most of the films were Westerns, Batman and Zorro pictures, or cartoons."
Sometimes, the Minors created major problems for the staff and Ken remembers a Christmas party which went awry.
"They'd booked Brian Rossi and his band to play for the Minors and everyone was given a bag of fruit, so you can guess what happened - 10-year-olds, who had thrown their apples and oranges at the stage had to be dragged out by the staff."
Belle and Brian Bell, who were from Belfast, remember more romantic times at the Strand. For their own love story blossomed in the back stalls 50 years ago - and they say it's still going strong.
"Our first date was to the Strand," says Belle. "We were only 17 and 18 and it was the first of many dates there. Half-a-century later, at the still-tender age of 70 and 71, we revisited the Strand on our wedding anniversary."
Norma McCullough started going to the Strand when she was 10. And 68 years later, she's still a regular, with fond memories from her teens of "the cuddles in the back row".
"When I had children, I would bring them along," she says. "I'm delighted the cinema is still there and being used by the local community. If they had torn it down, it would have broken my heart."
Robert Entwistle is another veteran Strand fan, a member of the cinema's Silver Screeners, who watch classic movies and then enter into a nostalgic debate about what they remember of their lives at the time the films were first shown.
"This cinema has been a part of my heart," he says. "I came here as a young man to the matinees 50-odd years ago. As I've got into my older years, I've come to films and concerts and I'm glad to see that this independent cinema is doing these things."
Award-winning author and screenwriter Glenn Patterson is a more recent recruit to the ranks of the Strand aficionados after moving to live close by.
His ground-breaking film Good Vibrations about Belfast's punk music legend Terri Hooley - who lived just a few hundred yards away from the Strand - was premiered there.
"It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Strand for the city as a whole and east Belfast in particular," he says.
"The potential is great, but the next step on the journey can only be taken together with the support of the community."
By coincidence, filmmaker John T Davis, who directed documentaries in the punk era, has close family ties to the Strand.
For his uncle was the Strand's architect, Jack McBride McNeill, who also designed 15 other cinemas in Northern Ireland.
Davis produced a documentary in tribute to him called The Uncle Jack and it was screened at the Strand last year.
John says: "Jack was like a second father to me and, when he died, he left everything to me, his house, his inventions, his musical instruments, but most importantly, the 8mm camera that was to change my life forever."
Sadly, however, the house outside Holywood, which Neill had bequeathed to his nephew, was devastated in a fire and most of Davis' film archive also went up in flames.
Three years earlier, during filming of The Uncle Jack, the old Tonic cinema in Bangor, which the architect had also designed, was also destroyed in a fire.
Earlier this week, another music giant was remembered at the Strand with the Belfast premiere of a movie about Rory Gallagher's first band, Taste, and their legendary performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.
Ivan Little: We sneaked in for free and spent our cash on popcorn
They were my magic carpet rides to another wondrous world. Ensconced in the commodious seats of the Strand cinema, I would sit back and let movie makers transport me to mystical magical destinations that I only knew from my geography books.
It didn't matter if it was Chicago across the Atlantic or Cong across the border, Gary Grant in North by Northwest and John Wayne in the Quiet Man still helped me to follow my dreams to colourful places far removed from the black-and-white ordinariness of Ballymacarrett.
And the chance to see Elvis Presley, come to life in Jailhouse Rock, or - whisper it - Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday, was an unmissable after-school thrill in a cinema that was a mere five-minute walk from my front door.
Invariably, there would be two films for the price of one and the Strand had different admission charges for the front and back stalls and for the balcony upstairs.
But my friends and I weren't penny pinchers - especially after we found a way of opening an emergency door at the side of the Strand on Pim's Avenue. One of us would pay in and allow the others in for free.
Instead, we spent the money we'd saved on obscenely sweet Butterkist popcorn, thirst-quenching Orange ice lollies or costlier ice-cream tubs, with their hard-to-handle little wooden spoons.
One of my brothers remembers that the women - they were always women - who appeared with their trays of treats between shows also used to sell cigarettes at a time when the screens weren't the only things that lit up in the Strand.
The advertisements in the intermissions from Pearl and Dean were an entertainment all of their own, as footage of a glamorous restaurant, for example, would stop, only to be replaced by a graphic of a local chippy and the posh English voice-over artist would say "Eat with us".
For the life of me, I don't know why, but cinema-goers would often arrive in the middle of the main feature. They'd hang around until it was screened again and leave after uttering the immortal line, "This is where we came in."
But getting out before the movie credits rolled was just as important, because few people, even in the heart of unionist east Belfast, wanted to hang around for the playing of the national anthem.